Calorie Deficit Without Exercise: The True Myth (Proven by Science)

Weight Loss & Diets | Written by Nathan | Updated on 16 September 2022

A dieting or calorie tracking app is on the left with donuts, cereal, carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes in the background, and a woman on the right side doing dumbbell raises has an "X" over her because she'd rather get into a calorie deficit without exercise.

The true myth heard in the world of weight loss is that a calorie deficit without exercise is possible because calories in vs calories out is what matters most. And while this is true, exercise can be used to speed up results and allows for a drastic change in body composition. 

But this may leave you wondering, how do you get into a calorie deficit without breaking a sweat, how much of a deficit should you strive for, and how fast will you see results?

Learn about the facts behind an exercise-free calorie deficit and discover some tips and tricks that make it achievable for every lifestyle instead of simply giving up on weight loss.

Is it Possible to be in a Calorie Deficit Without Exercise? 

A calorie deficit is created by burning more calories than are consumed, and while the term “burning calories” seems to be in reference to working out, the body is actually burning calories every minute of every day, regardless of whether or not exercise is being performed.

While the amount of calories burned in a day is an important number to know when trying to achieve get into a deficit without exercise, being aware of the number of calories consumed, and potentially adjusting that total can be the real game changer to ensure a calorie deficit.

So all in all, yes, it is possible to be in a calorie deficit without breaking a sweat or without exercise. 

Can You Lose Fat Without Exercise on a Calorie Deficit Diet? Does it Work?

The key to weight loss is creating a calorie deficit, and while that deficit can be achieved by exercising, working out is not a requirement. So being in a calorie deficit itself implies that weight will be lost with, or without exercise.

As mentioned above, the body is constantly burning calories, this is due to:

  • Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR): BMR is a calculation of how much energy is used by the body while performing basic functions such as pumping blood, digesting food, breathing, etc.1
  • Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): NEAT is the sum of calories burned through daily activities that are not classified as exercise, such as working, preparing dinner, walking around a store, along with many other routine tasks.2

The combination of BMR and NEAT equals total daily energy expenditure or TDEE. Any calories burned from exercise would also be included in TDEE, but they are not necessary.

It is a common practice for most to figure out TDEE when looking to drop pounds, but it is especially helpful when trying to pinpoint how many calories to lose weight without exercise due to having a smaller calorie budget.

Due to the complicated calculations for TDEE, using a readily available online calorie calculator is easiest.3When a dieter knows the number of calories burned by their body on a daily basis, achieving a calorie deficit without exercise becomes doable

How to Get Into a Calorie Deficit Without Counting Calories

As long as the body is “burning” more calories than are being consumed, a diet with a calorie deficit without counting calories can still be achieved, although it might take a bit of time to track progress. 

To know if a calorie deficit is being achieved, an individual can track their weight throughout the month. After a week or two, if the scale begins to drop, then a calorie deficit has been achieved. However, if weeks go by without weight loss, then it is likely that too many calories are being consumed, so the amount of food eaten daily should be reduced until weight loss is seen.

12 Tricks to Lose Weight & Create a Calorie Deficit Without Exercise 

Losing weight but not exercising can be achieved through a calorie deficit and being open to trying new routines could help in discovering ways that fit into most people’s daily life with minimal disruption. 

Below are proven tricks that can create a calorie deficit without having to cram in an intense cardio session or spending hours at a gym.

1. Add in Some Walking

Adding in some walking does not mean it is necessary to get decked out in workout clothes and hit the track for multiple laps. Walking the dog, taking a social stroll around the neighborhood with friends, and window shopping at the local mall are all increases in activity that the body will recognize and appreciate.

Walking can aid in increasing NEAT, or the energy expended by routine activities and could make a big difference in calories burned per day and can make weight loss much more attainable. 

The benefits of taking a walk don’t stop at burning calories, it can lower blood sugar, reduce high blood pressure, and potentially minimize the risk of heart disease.4 

A man walking on a treadmill while eating a hamburger wishing he could diet and lose weight without having to exercise.

2. Discover a New Activity

Opening the mind to a new hobby can have similar benefits to walking, in that any activity that involves movement will add to the calories burned throughout the day or week. Finding a low-intensity activity and figuring out how to manifest your dream body while doing something that is enjoyable will increase the odds of making it a routine while benefiting from an increased calorie deficit. Consider trying:

  • Gardening – Planting flowers, picking fruits and vegetables, and watering the beds can motivate movement.
  • Photography – Getting off the couch to explore new places to document through film can increase calorie burn.
  • Dance Lessons – Whether hip hop or country is the favorite station on the car radio, finding a dance class to fit any style is possible. Improving footwork while getting some steps in is a healthy hobby.  

3. Volunteer

Consider volunteering; not only will helping others take the focus off oneself, it may even make increasing a calorie deficit effortless; by committing time to others, time will also be spent boosting a daily step count and working up a sweat now and then. Coaching a child’s soccer team, helping charities to build houses, or playing with dogs at a local shelter are all health-enhancing activities that will enrich everyone’s lives. 

There are countless volunteer events that should suit anyone’s skillset; if things don’t work out in a particular scenario, there are guaranteed to be many more opportunities to be involved. 

4. Become More Mindful

Distracted eating is a slippery slope and can lead to consuming excess calories and subsequent weight gain. Being mindful during every meal and snack can help with awareness of things the body needs and doesn’t need.

Paying attention to triggers and hunger signals can help differentiate whether it is actual hunger being felt as opposed to a different feeling or emotion just masking itself as hunger. Asking questions such as:

  • Am I actually hungry?
  • Has the food I’ve chosen to eat satisfied my hunger?
  • Is it actually boredom, stress, or sadness that I’m trying to relieve through eating?

If these questions are asked on a daily basis, the number of calories consumed could start to decrease and the potential to lose weight by eating less rises.

5. Eat More Fiber and Protein 

Feeling fuller for a longer period of time is a great way to lessen the number of calories eaten in a day and achieve a calorie deficit without exercise. Two great options that help in this task are fiber and protein, especially when paired together.

Fiber is the first line of defense, it helps give a feeling of fullness fairly quickly, which signals the brain that eating can slow down. Protein is in it for the long haul and is perfect for extending the feeling of fullness for a longer period of time.5 Both of these together are the ideal combo for staying in a calorie deficit. 

6. Avoid Sugar

Eliminating a certain food from a daily diet can greatly reduce the number of calories consumed associated with that food. Sugar is hidden in a huge variety of snacks and meals and can add an exorbitant amount of calories to a daily budget if not taken into account.

How to stop eating junk food and sugar is tough at first due to its addictive properties; in fact, the average adult in the United States consumes around 3 times the recommended amount of sugar per day.6 The resulting calorie deficit, along with reducing the risk of obesity and diabetes, could be the motivation needed to give cutting out sugar a try.

7. Cut Down on Eating Out

Eating out can be both convenient and tasty, but it can be a diet killer due to the high amounts of added fat and carbs. Most food establishments are required to list calories on the menu, so it should come as no surprise how quickly a meal of convenience can cause an overabundance of calories.

If eating out is a common occurrence, reducing the frequency of when take-out is delivered or cutting back on trips through the drive-thru should help save a significant amount of calories per week. Finding quality replacements for favorite restaurant foods will help reduce cravings and is one of the most achievable ways to lose weight without exercise.

8. Ditch Ultra-Processed Foods

If it’s hard to cut back on calories, think about switching processed foods for whole foods. Studies have shown that people who eat highly processed foods eat more calories than those who eat less processed choices.7

Many prepared or packaged foods such as soups, dressings, and frozen meals are highly processed. Being aware of ingredients will help in steering clear of these items, but finding a replacement for them will help in long-term success. Here are a few ideas for easy swaps:

Processed Food Whole Food Swap
Flavored Yogurt Plain Yogurt with Fruit
Margarine Butter
Breakfast Cereal Plain Oatmeal with Natural Peanut Butter
Microwave Popcorn Popcorn Popped in an Air Popper

9. Practice Fasting

If counting calories is too overwhelming, fasting is a great option because it removes the need to think about food for a portion of the day. Fasting for beginners may be a bit overwhelming at first because of the different styles, but incorporating one of the following ways of eating may be easier than expected

  • Time Restricted Eating – Fasting for a majority of the day and restricting meals to the remaining hours.
  • Eat Stop Eat – Fasting for one or two days per week while eating normally for the other days.
  • One Meal a Day – Restricting eating to one meal per day throughout the entire week.
  • Alternate Day Fasting – One full day of fasting, followed by one full day of normal eating, and repeated for the week.

Extensive research has gone into fasting and the benefits that are associated with it; and while many debates whether alternate day fasting vs omad is more beneficial or time-restricted eating vs eat stop eat has better results, determining what works best for each individual and their schedule is ultimately going to be the best method of measuring success.

10. Swap Out Calorie-Filled Drinks to Maintain a Calorie Deficit Without Exercise

Between sugary sodas, calorie-laden coffees, and other beverages, research has found that the average person in the U.S. consumes 22% of their calories per day on things they drink.8 While these drinks may taste good at the moment, they are doing little to satisfy hunger and can lead straight to an overage of calories.

Try plain sparkling water with lemon, diet soda, unsweet tea with Stevia, or vodka and soda for replacements for everyday choices and potentially free up those excess calories to help achieve that calorie deficit. 

11. Pay Attention to Portion Size

Serving up large portions can mask the number of calories that are being eaten and play a big part in why excess weight is still hanging around. Portion sizes, especially at restaurants, are typically quite a bit more than the average person needs.

If eating out, consider splitting a meal with a dining partner or asking for a to-go container when the meal arrives and immediately putting a portion away. It should be easier to eat less when the food is no longer on the table.

When at home, instead of grabbing a normal-sized dinner plate, opt for a smaller salad plate. This can help make it seem like the portions that are on the plate are bigger and initially satisfy the mind while the stomach catches up.

A woman wearing a white headband is holding onto an exercise bar at a park while eating an extra, large double-stacked burger.

12. Meal Prep 

Preparing meals in advance can be an excellent way to remove stress from the coming week, but also some extra calories. Planning and prepping food will help remove the temptation to grab take-out or partake in other convenience meals.

Investing time at the beginning of the week to cook and separate food can help with planning daily or weekly calorie counts and can ultimately free up headspace each day. Not having to make decisions while hungry or stressed is a big way to save on calories.

Should I Exercise if I’m Not Losing Weight With a Calorie Deficit Alone? 

While exercise is an option for most, if it is starting to feel like “I will never lose weight”, there are a couple of things that could be causing this occurrence.

Initially, it might be wise to reevaluate TDEE and ensure that the correct data is being input to estimate calories burned per day.  Along with this, measuring and tracking every calorie that is consumed on a daily basis for a short period will help confirm whether a deficit is actually being achieved.

Miscalculating both calories burned and calories consumed is an easy mistake and until someone discovers how to lose weight without a calorie deficit, taking the time to ensure both calories out and calories in are accurate can help with achieving weight loss.

Another thing to consider is when working towards a calorie deficit without exercise is diet fatigue. If dieting has been a way of life for quite a while, it might be a good idea to take a break and work to reset your metabolism because dieting to hard or too long can lead to plateaus. This can be done by dedicating a few weeks to eating maintenance-level calories; once excessive hunger or exhaustion has subsided, rotating back into diet mode might prompt weight loss.

If tracking is being painstakingly managed and no weight has been lost, seeing a doctor should be the next course of action. A healthcare professional can perform tests that will look for metabolic, hormonal, or other issues that could keep an individual from losing weight and potentially prescribe a course for treatment.

How Many Calories Should I Eat to Slim Down Without Exercise? 

One of the easiest ways to pinpoint a calorie goal is to utilize the help of a calorie deficit calculator.3 This can help determine TDEE and, along with considering a goal weight and timeframe to reach that goal, a suggested amount of calories per day will be given. Assuming that a dieter sticks to this guideline, changes in weight should be seen in no time.

What’s The Maximum Calorie Deficit I Should Be In? 

Focusing on how to lose fat and how to jump-start weight loss can play a large role in a person’s life, but it is imperative that it isn’t done with a daily extreme calorie deficit, as this can be detrimental to health and can eventually cause other issues such as binge eating or obsessing over food.

Generally, the minimum calorie intake for women is 1,200/day and for men is 1,500/day unless supervised by a doctor. Falling below these caloric amounts can contribute to malnutrition and cause a myriad of other health problems. Sticking to a daily calorie deficit of 500-1000 is a standard and can result in a loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week.9 Below is a chart that gives general examples of calorie deficits for persons looking to lose 1 pound per week.

35-Year-Old Subject with Sedentary Lifestyle* Calories per Day to Maintain Calories per Day for a 1 lb Weight Loss per Week
Female – 175 lbs 2,044 1,544
Female – 160 lbs 1,949 1,449
Female – 150 lbs 1,885 1,385
Male – 210 lbs 2,654 2,154
Male – 195 lbs 2,559 2,059
Male – 180 lbs 2,464 1,964

*Using U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Body Weight Planner. Calculations assumed a female height of 5’3” and a male height of 5’10” and a Physical Activity Level of 1.4.3

Losing weight without working out may not help in achieving a 6 pack, but it can certainly contribute to excess fat loss and slimming down. A calorie deficit without exercise is a reality backed by science and all it takes is some planning and focus to achieve weight goals.


References

1Mt. San Antonio College of Kinesiology and Sports Nutrition. (n.d.). BMR Calculator. Mt. SAC. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from <https://www.mtsac.edu>

2Levine, J. A. (2002). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). PubMed. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov>

3U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Body Weight Planner | NIDDK. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from <https://www.niddk.nih.gov>

4National Institutes of Health. (2016, March). The Benefits of Walking. NIH News in Health. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from <https://newsinhealth.nih.gov>

5Godman, H. (2013, May 1). Extra protein is a decent dietary choice, but don’t overdo it. Harvard Health. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from <https://www.health.harvard.edu>

6Detrano, J. (2022). Sugar Addiction: More Serious Than You Think | Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies. Rutgers Center for Alcohol Studies. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from <https://alcoholstudies.rutgers.edu>

7U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2019, May 16). NIH study finds heavily processed foods cause overeating and weight gain. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Retrieved August 16, 2022, from <https://www.nih.gov>

8Ebrahim, Z. (2012, July 21). 22% of US calories come from drinks | Health24. News24. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from <https://www.news24.com>

9Harvard Medical School. (2020, July 11). Calorie counting made easy. Harvard Health. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from <https://www.health.harvard.edu>

About the Author

Nathan

Nathan has been a fitness enthusiast for the past 12 years and jumps between several types of training such as bodybuilding, powerlifting, cycling, gymnastics, and backcountry hiking. Due to the varying caloric needs of numerous sports, he has cycled between all types of diets and currently eats a whole food diet. In addition, Nathan lives with several injuries such as hip impingement, spondylolisthesis, and scoliosis, so he underwent self-rehabilitation and no longer lives with debilitating pain.